Reactor

A Look at China’s Second Tier Cities

by An Xiao on March 28, 2012

LEAP's new series looks at the arts communities of two second tier cities along the Yangtze River, Chongqing and Wuhan.

LOS ANGELES — Beijing and Shanghai get all the press, but China’s art scene extends far beyond its most famous cities. Guangzhou, for instance, best known as a thriving port city, also hosts its own triennial and is home to popular artist Cao Fei.

LEAP Magazine has just published a series of fascinating profiles on China’s second tier cities. The aptly named “A Tale of Tier Two Cities” focuses on Chongqing and Wuhan, two of my favorite cities in China.

Second tier cities, in other words cities whose level of development lie just below the more developed coastal metropolises we all know, have a thriving art scene that gets scant attention in Western and even Chinese press. After short visits to Chongqing and Wuhan, central inland cities that run along the Yangtze River, I got a brief glimpse of what art looks like there and vowed to come back some time to do a more proper profile.

The most fascinating report, for me, looks at Chongqing and its Huangjueping area, which hosts the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and, as I reported, quite possible the world’s largest graffiti street. The city has been in Chinese press recently with the ousting of its popular leader, Bo Xilai, who transformed the city from what was once perceived as a corrupt, backwater provincial town into a bustling municipality of nearly 30 million people. This rapid change, the series suggests, might explain its close knit art community:

A photo from inside Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing's Huangjueping area. (photo by the author)

Since the initial phase of Chongqing’s experimental art scene at the turn of the century, to its resurrection in 2012, Huangjueping has inevitably seen various changes. One person might point to a new teahouse, another might say the flavor of its dishes has changed. As far as experimental art is concerned, though, what has not changed is the local collective consciousness. Those on the outside may be quick to suggest that this is a case of artists sticking together, and those on the inside may very well respond that now is a good time to be doing just that.

The series is well worth a read, and I’m hoping to get my hands on the print edition, which has an essay on the growing art market in Wuhan. Wuhan is known as the home of China’s punk scene, and its industrial landscape and polluted skies certainly speak to punk mythology. As explored in an essay asking if the city has been “left behind.” The plus side, of course, is that there’s literally more liberalism too:

Complaints that Wuhan has been “left behind” by the central government may be gratuitously masochistic. Believers in the greatness of the city point out that being second-tier has its advantages, particularly in the realm of everyday life: the cost of living is lower, life is lived at a slower pace, and the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to certain trivialities that may be censured in the capital. Such a liberal atmosphere may be conducive to cultural growth.

All but one of the four-article series can be found on LEAP Magazine‘s website.

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